Chapter 21- Practicing the Pace

Continued from my journal of 2008 when I walked from Washington D.C. to Pittsburgh while memorizing the gospel of John.

Yesterday I finished learning John 15.  That is, after we got through our early morning singing session to ward off the bear.  The rest of the day,  Chester, as usual, led the way and I followed.  We do look a little odd.  His leash is often looped through the waist belt of my pack so that my hands are free to hold the book of John’s gospel.  I suppose it appears that he is pulling me along, although the truth is we have long since settled into a pace that matches one another.  A few days ago when a group of bikers passed us, one young woman called out to her friends, “Oh look, that dog is walking its person!”  Well, she should have seen Chester yesterday!  We had completed about sixteen and a half miles (of eighteen) when Chester suddenly picked up the pace into high gear.  I was surprised because most days he slows down as the walk wears on. Was he impatient with this especially long hike?  Could he smell Ohiopyle with its outdoor cafes?  Did he have a sixth sense that we were getting close to the car with his own back seat to stretch out upon and rest his paws?  There was no doubt that for the final mile he was “walking his person,” pulling as we zoomed over the last two pedestrian/bike bridges that spanned a loop of the river.

After driving back to the camper, I collapsed into bed, Chester crashed on the couch and we were well into a deep sleep when Rick and my daughter-in-law Tera got back about 1:00 a.m. from D.C.  Everyone has slept in this morning.  We are foraging for our own late breakfasts, carrying food out to sit around the campfire, moving chairs as the smoke shifts and spilling cups of tea in the process.  Increasing scattered storms are in the forecast for the day, so we decide to head up to Adelaide and get four miles of hiking completed before the rain sets in. A short walk is enough to get rid of the stiffness from yesterday, but not enough to be too tiring.

Tera joins me and today it is she, not Chester, who sets a quick pace.  I say our walking prayer, and she holds the John book and checks me on how well I can remember chapter 15.  One light shower passes over and does not get anyone too wet.  We reach Dawson in just under an hour and a half, climb into the truck in time to avoid harder rain,  drive back to Ohiopyle,  eat lunch outdoors at the Firefly Grill, and stop by the town park to take photos of the falls.  All of this is done in between thunder showers.  Before heading home, we stop at a short trail that leads steeply down to a creek at the base of Cucumber Falls.  Tera and I stop halfway down at a wooden landing.  Here we are level with the upper branches of a stately hemlock that rises from the foot of the falls and whose limbs stretch over the splashing water and spray.  I am too tired to go any further down, and thunder is rumbling louder than the din of the pounding water on rock.

From our vantage point we spot a bird with striking yellow markings flying from branch to branch.  This little creature moves like a fluttering dart, different from  the relaxed, swooping dips of a goldfinch, a bird of similar color.  We watch carefully as it flits in and out of sight.  Back at the camper, we search the bird book and  guess the bird was a Kentucky warbler.  Apparently they like moist, shady places which certainly describes the waterfall ravine in which we had been standing.  Kentucky warblers are also hard to see, says the book, because they stay up in the branches of the trees.  We were fortunate.  Because we were standing half-way up (or down) the ravine, we were eye-level with the warbler’s territory.

I wish I could say more about the territory of John 15.  I am the vine, you are the branches.  Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit,because apart from me you can do nothing.  This thing about abiding in Christ is for me as elusive as the Kentucky warbler.   On the one hand, the words are quite simple: abide in me as I abide in you. Stay in me as I stay in you. On the other hand, exactly how in the world are we supposed to do that?  Who can explain what Jesus means?  Especially when he goes on to say abiding in him is comparable to his abiding with the Father.  Really?  I can “abide” like that?  What about when I go back at work where there are so many demanding responsibilities in life;  I might go most of a day before I have a chance to think about him. Where’s the abiding then?   I had hoped to get some enlightenment after walking with John 15 for eighteen miles yesterday, but I am just as clueless today as I was yesterday morning about Christ’s invitation to abide.

At  a loss, I sit on the camp bed propped against pillows with the journal on my lap, writing my questions down. I begin to skim through the journal entries of the last two months.  I read through hundreds of miles of walking, and through that time Jesus and his words were the focus of a large part of each day.  As I turn page after page, I realize this has surely been something of what it means to abide in him.  It is becoming evident that this whole walk has been learning about “abiding in Christ.”  My part has simply been to walk with the gospel of John open, to be watchful and to listen, giving opportunity for the relationship to grow as we journey along.  Nevertheless, this pilgrim (me) is finally beginning to understand that walking the water way is more a practice session than an end in itself.  I have been practicing paying attention to Christ for a number of hours a day.  I have been practicing living with joy, life and courage.  I have been practicing having a friendly conversation with the Christ of John’s gospel throughout the day.  I have been practicing having words of scripture wrap around different activities on the trail.  I have been practicing slowing down to notice the small treasures in creation.  I have been practicing matching my pace with Christ as I read andlearn his words.  However, I am sure that in spite of all that, he is forever matching his pace to my wandering steps.  I have been, I think, practicing  what Jesus quite simply calls  “abiding in me.”

But in fact, Christ is always aware of me, always abiding in me, and always working through me, even though I am not always aware of abiding in him.  The times when I am unable to focus on Christ’s presence are times when I simply have to trust in the deeper connection that he is abiding in me beyond my awareness. In fact, he does the abiding for me.  Meanwhile, I practice the pace, match the pace,  keeping the pace with the Christ.

This pilgrim prays:

How can I not abide in you, my Friend?
You surround me.
There is no place you are not;
your encircling assures
I abide in you.

And how can you not abide in me, my Source?
You “knit me together in my mother’s womb.”
You tend the pulses that pace my earthly life’s limits
and know the shadows of myself that I do not.
That I am breathing at all
or can think your name
declares you abide in me

The abiding, yours and mine,
is already doubly done by you.
You abide for me,
both you in me and drawing me in you,
and the abiding thus insured,
I just open my eyes and sing.